People Matter to God: What kind of person, family, or society does God want? What would the world, or our lives, look like if they truly reflected the Kingdom of Heaven? We’ll consider four examples from the Sermon on the Mount. First, we would have a much higher value for human life. Why? Because people matter to God. All people. For followers of Jesus, this has huge implications for our attitude toward and treatment of others. Recorded on July 24, 2022, on Matthew 5:21-26, by Pastor David Parks.
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This message is part of our sermon series “The Unexpected Way,” from the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew 5-7 in the Bible. The way of Jesus is totally unique; it’s different from every other way of life, philosophy, or religion. Why? Because the teaching of Jesus — emphasizing holiness, humility, justice, faith, and sacrificial love — leads to a whole new gospel-centered ethic. This ancient ethic, if actually practiced, has the power to bring abundant love and joy and peace to anyone, anywhere today. This is the way.
This month, we started our new annual theme for our preaching ministry, which is Learning the way of Jesus. The whole year, we’ll be answering this big question, “If the gospel is true, how then should we live?” And we’ve said that the answer is rooted in learning a new way of life, which is the way of Jesus. To start, we’ve been working through a very famous teaching of Jesus known as the Sermon on the Mount in a sermon series called, The Unexpected Way. The way of Jesus is just a radically different way from every other philosophy or religion — and it’s not at all what you’d expect. But the teaching of Jesus — emphasizing holiness, humility, justice, faith, and sacrificial love — leads to a whole new gospel-centered ethic. And this ancient ethic, if actually practiced, can bring a life of love/joy/peace to anyone, anywhere today. This is the way. Last week, we considered what it means to be a good person, and we saw that only the goodness/righteousness of Christ leads to our salvation. Not one of us has earned our way into the kingdom of heaven. But then, for the Christian, if the gospel is true, we’re called to live our lives in a way that is good/right/true. So, what do you think this type of life looks like? Today, and for the next few weeks, we’ll consider six examples of this type of life; or six examples of how life should work in God’s kingdom. First up, Jesus teaches on the value of human life, but Jesus goes far beyond anything we’d expect. If you have a Bible/app, please open to Matthew 5:21. We’ll read through this first and then unpack it together.
Matthew 5:21-26 (NIV), “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister, will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. 23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift. 25 “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.”
As I mentioned, this is the first of six examples of the righteousness required by God; in other words, this is what it takes to actually be a good person. Jesus shows us here that each OT Law for ancient Israel had an underlying principle that went way beyond what the Law simply prohibits. But this underlying principle, rooted in God’s character, is how God intended for human beings to actually live. I think you’ll see this as we go. Let’s start again with v.21.
Matthew 5:21-22a (NIV), “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you…” So my first observation is that even in the Bible, no other human being talks like Jesus. The OT prophets would say, “This is what the Lord says…” or “The Lord God Almighty spoke these words…” or “In a vision, the Lord showed me..” In other words, the source of a prophet’s message was never the prophet, the source was always God. But here, Jesus says, “You’ve heard it said, but I tell you…” His teaching seems to have a higher authority than even the OT prophets. Of course, if Jesus is the Son of God sent from heaven, then he would have the authority to speak in this way. So what, with this divine authority, does Jesus say? He says, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “You shall not murder.” This is the sixth commandment of the Ten Commandments found in Exodus chapter 20. But Jesus adds, “and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.” This last phrase isn’t part of the Ten Commandments but was most likely the expectation of the people of his day. I’d say this is our expectation, too. If you’re guilty of murder, you will be punished — or at least you ought to be! Getting away with murder is a clear injustice and should be a moral outrage. With the exception of cultures that practiced human sacrifice, or whenever the personhood of a person is in question (for example: for unborn babies or people in slavery), there isn’t a people in history that ever taught that murder was anything other than morally/ethically wrong. But then, Jesus goes on from this point on which people almost universally agree saying, “But I tell you…” Now, what would Jesus say? Would he take back this commandment, perhaps to allow for violence for those who aren’t Christians? Or would he give some new exception to the rule? Just the opposite. Look back at v. 22.
Matthew 5:22 (NIV), “But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister, will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” So what does Jesus say? He certainly doesn’t give any new exceptions. He doesn’t shrink/lower the righteous requirements of the Law, he actually raises/deepens them. And this is the pattern we’ll see in all six examples that Jesus gives in the Sermon on the Mount. It’s far harder to be a good person than any of us would like to admit. But what does Jesus say? If I could paraphrase, Jesus says something like, “You all expect that murderers should face judgment, and rightly so. But I tell you that anyone who angrily dismisses/disrespects/devalues a brother or sister will face judgment.” Judgment, where? Jesus can’t be thinking only of our legal system or the courts here. Because only the judgment of God at the end of this age, at the resurrection of the dead, can condemn someone to hell. A human judge could never do that. But wait a minute, is Jesus really saying we can never get angry with someone or call a fool a fool? After all, who among us hasn’t thought, at one time or another (or the more bold ones among us have said), “What an idiot!” Or perhaps, “You’re an idiot!” Aren’t we all guilty, to some degree, of this attitude? So are we in danger of the fire of hell? There are several things to say here. First, in some ways, I think this is an example of the hyperbole that Jesus uses so often in his teaching. Jesus often teaches a principle in an extreme way to make it memorable and make sure we’re really paying attention so that his true disciples would seek to understand what he means by this. Second, we know that anger isn’t necessarily a sin. The Bible says that God is slow to anger and abounding in love. But God does get angry, particularly against wickedness and injustice, really against anything that harms his children. And there are several examples in the gospels when Jesus became angry, too. Both Psalm 4 and Eph 4 say, “In your anger do not sin.” So it must be possible for us to be angry in an appropriate way. But the truth is, anytime our emotions are high, anytime we’re fired up about something, we’re more vulnerable to sin, and we’re more susceptible to say/do things we later regret, things that are really wrong. The same goes for dealing with a fool. It’s a really difficult interaction to get right — to maintain love and kindness to someone, to gently instruct or correct someone, or forgive someone who is so obviously a fool! It’s much easier to dismiss the person with an insult and feel justified in doing so.
So is this just a warning to be careful when our emotions run high? That might be helpful, but I don’t think that’s quite the point here. Remember, Jesus grounds this teaching in an interpretation of the sixth commandment. So how do these two things: the prohibition against murder and angrily dismissing/disrespecting/devaluing someone, relate to each other? Understanding this link is the key to understanding this whole passage. The way these two concepts relate is by showing us God’s heart behind the sixth commandment. God doesn’t want people to simply avoid murdering each other. What kind of family or society would that be? God has a positive intent behind this negative commandment. The more I think about this teaching, the more I see two levels of God’s positive intent and then about a million implications of this teaching. Let’s consider these two levels of intent. First, the sixth commandment, “You shall not murder,” is actually a positive affirmation of the value of human life. And this fits with God’s character because God is the author of life. He is the creator of the heavens and the earth. And he is the creator of human beings. Further, God created men and women in his own image and likeness, giving us a special place in creation to rule and reign as stewards over his good and perfect world. But God didn’t set things in motion in the universe only to sit back and watch how it all played out. We’re taught in the Scriptures that God upholds/sustains all things by a word of his power. That means if God stopped willing our reality into existence, we would cease to be. But God has promised to uphold life, even, for a time, the lives of those who are enemies with God. In fact, God provides all sorts of things for his enemies and never delights in their death, even of the truly wicked. So the prohibition of murder is rooted in a bigger/deeper principle of God’s care for human life. People matter to God. That’s the first level of meaning. But don’t you see how this must lead to the second level of meaning?? That it would matter to God how we value human life? That people should matter to us, as well? And this value is reflected in how we treat one another?? This is the second level of meaning. The people/families/society that God desires is not one where we simply avoid murder and think we’re reflecting God’s heart for others. A person/family/society like that could still be mean and nasty to each other, they could still use people and be used by people, hate and be hated, so long as they didn’t kill each other. But this is not God’s heart. The positive intent of God behind the sixth commandment is far higher/greater than that. God wants people who actively love and serve and enjoy one another. God wants people who are a blessing to each other and give grace to one another, as he blesses and gives grace, people who work for the flourishing life of every other person in every conversation and interaction with them. So dismissing/disrespecting/devaluing someone in anger is a violation of God’s heart behind the sixth commandment — and, Jesus says, should be taken very seriously. Why? Because this is the kind of behavior that will be judged, maybe not by our court system, but by the courts of heaven; maybe not by other men and women in our culture, but by God, the author of life. Of course, this teaching has about a million implications, but here, Jesus gives us two powerful examples. Look back at v.23.
Matthew 5:23-24 (NIV), “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” The altar Jesus is referring to here is in the temple in Jerusalem. He’s describing a situation where someone has made the journey from wherever they live, perhaps in Capernaum or Nazareth, where he grew up, all the way to Jerusalem (a journey that would’ve taken many days to make) to offer a sacrifice as part of their worship. But then remembering that their brother or sister has something against them. As expensive as that would’ve been, and as important as worship is to God, Jesus is saying it would be more important to leave your gift there and go and be reconciled to them. Then, when you have sought reconciliation, come back and continue to worship. God cares more about how we value/treat other people than about our worship. Isn’t that surprising? Every other religion that has ever tried to envision what God is like has thought that God (or the gods) valued worship more than other people and that we could appease them by our sacrifices of worship. But Jesus says that God cares more about our relationships/treatment of others than our sacrifices. Now this isn’t really new. Through the prophet Isaiah, God had said, “Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me…even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening.” Why? God accuses his people saying, “Your hands are full of blood! Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” The Apostle John also understood this teaching when he wrote, “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar…Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.” People matter to God, so people should matter to us, as well. This is God’s heart, and this is the type of person/society that God wants. This is what life is supposed to be like and what it will be like in the kingdom of heaven. Let’s finish this passage. Look back at v. 25.
Matthew 5:25-26 (NIV), “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.” So, perhaps, Jesus is giving us some legal advice here? Given the context, I don’t think so. While it might be helpful to work for a quick resolution in a lawsuit, I think the court system is another reference to the judgment of God at the end of the age, when all will stand before God and give an account of their lives to him. And what will be judged? How we treat even an adversary. In a few weeks, we’ll deal more fully with how to treat our enemies, but for now, let’s see this as a simple extension of the principle Jesus has been teaching. If people matter to God, and people ought to matter just as much to us, then even in a situation where someone is legally or just personally against us, our calling isn’t to power up and meet them head-on with strength or power. But how then should we deal with them? The force of this teaching isn’t explicit in our modern translation. The NIV has the phrase, “settle matters,” but the original Greek says, “Make friends quickly with your adversary.” Jesus calls us, if it is at all possible, to make a friend out of an adversary. Don’t start a mud-slinging campaign; reach out. Don’t work to undermine them; call them. Don’t power up in pride, but humbly see if you can win them over. Now sometimes it is simply not possible to make friends with someone, and it’s never fully up to us whether someone responds well to us. But again, if people are supposed to matter this much to us, then it’s worth it to try. We can disagree with people without being disagreeable. We can live with others who think/vote/believe differently than we do. So is this easy or hard? This teaching of Jesus is certainly hard. But if we refuse to do this, if we refuse to treat others how God wants us to treat them, do we even believe the gospel? Are we even trying to follow the way of Jesus? If not, then we may in fact be in danger of the judgment of God.
So Jesus last week we saw that our righteousness must surpass that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law or we will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. And this teaching is the first example of the kind of righteousness that God requires. If I’m honest, I’m amazed at the type of society this would create if people actually lived like this. But I’m also feeling the burden of sin in my life. Because I struggle to believe and act as if people really matter to me all the time. I’m constantly tempted to dismiss people as fools or idiots. Of course, I know the gospel, and I believe it to be true that God sent his one and only Son to seek and to save, not the best among us, but the lost. And I know I’d be lost if not for the grace of God found in Christ. So what do I do when I see the sin in my life? When I see just how far I’ve fallen short of the glory of God in how I value other people? I repent and find forgiveness once again, and I get up out of the dust and take one step of faith after another in following the way of Jesus. But over time, as I grow in the truth of God’s word and am conformed to the likeness of Christ by the power of the Spirit, I can look back and see just how far I’ve come. One final point is how this relates to our life in the church. The language of brother and sister in the NT always refers to other believers in the family of God. So, Lord, may our church be a reflection of the kingdom of heaven. And may we value and respect and attend to the needs of all people, regardless of their wealth, size, abilities, intelligence, or beauty. Regardless of whether they are wise or foolish. And so, Lord, may we become the type of society that is aligned with the beautiful heart of God. Let us pray.